Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dinah Watts Devizes 1824

There was little career advice available when my mum left school in 1924.  She remembered the headmistress asking her what kind of job she wanted and replying she didn't know but she didn't want to do any sewing.  Within days of her 14th birthday mum began work at Burnetts, a shop in Kingly Street in London's West End, as an apprentice upholsteress - she sewed for a living for the next 58 years.

Dinah Watts sewing career was equally long.  This week collections volunteers at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery catalogued two samplers - one worked by Jane Bray in her 9th year and the other by Dinah Watts from Devizes dated 1824.

A hundred years before my mum began her upholsterer's apprenticeship, ten year old Dinah was at work on her sewing practice.

Dinah was christened in Devizes on August 7, 1814, the daughter of William Watts and his wife Jane.  In 1836 she married cabinet maker Arthur Buckley and at the time of the 1841 census the couple lived in Sheep Street, Devizes with their two young children.  By 1861 they were living at Mortimer's Court where ten years later Arthur, by then aged 57, employed an apprentice alongside his three sons Arthur, James and Henry.

But it is only after Arthur's death that Dinah's occupation is revealed.  By the time of the 1881 census Dinah and her son Henry are living in Reading with her daughter Jane and son in law George, a labourer at the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory.  Dinah's occupation is stated as upholsteress - no doubt she had previously worked with her husband and sons in the family business.

My Mum could turn her hand to just about any sewing project.  For nearly thirty years she worked at the Kingly Street shop where clients included the rich and famous of the day.  Mum was commissioned by the Countess of Suffolk and frequently worked at Charlton Park in Malmesbury.  She spoke about Lord and Lady Suffolk with such affection that as a child I thought we were related.

Following my birth she continued to work for Burnetts, but this time at home on our dining table.  I remember the luxuriant materials of the church vestments she sewed in vibrant yellows, greens and purples, with gold crosses and fringes, the off cuts of which I kept in an old tobacco tin.  Then there were the curtains and pelmets, parcels delivered and collected by the sewing room foreman who I called Uncle George.  I was allowed to walk with him to the phone box at the end of our street.  "Give my love to Margaret," I used to tell him.  Margaret was his teenage daughter who I had once met and who obviously made a big impression upon me.

In the early 1960s mum stopped working for Burnetts.  Although less aesthetically pleasing she discovered she could earn more money sewing the leather inserts of crash helmets made by a firm called Vero based in Dulwich.  This time it was my job to deliver the parcels of work to Auntie Dot who worked in the factory and lived in a house on the corner of St John's Crescent and Brixton Road.

In 1966 we left London for a new life in the country, a misguided and regrettable leap of faith for my parents.  Within weeks of our arrival mum was back at work, sewing curtains for Mitcham's, a shop in Cambridge, the materials delivered and collected by van driver John to whom mum acted as agony aunt.

When I accompanied my dad to register mum's death the registrar asked what her occupation had been.  Dad told him the same story I have recounted here.  Clarifying the information before he filled out the death certificate, the Registrar described mum as a seamstress.

"Oh no," dad quickly corrected him.  "She was an upholsteress."

From a little girl aged 10 stitching her sampler, Dinah had honed her craft and like my mum spent a lifetime earning a living from sewing.  Dinah Buckley died back home in Devizes in 1883.  And last week the collections volunteers admired anew the sampler she laboured over 188 years ago.

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